Searching for the truth

Nine years later, family still hopes to find Brandon Swanson

Photo by Jenny Kirk Co-search manager Ken Anderson, left, and canine handler Bill Hall discuss specifics before conducting an October 2015 search for Brandon Swanson, a Marshall teenager who went missing on May 14, 2008.

MARSHALL — Sunday marked the ninth anniversary of Brandon Swanson’s disappearance. Swanson was 19 years old when he vanished without a trace as he headed home to Marshall on May 14, 2008. Only his vehicle — recovered undamaged in a ditch along a gravel road in rural Taunton — has been found since.

“Brandon is heavy on our minds all the time, but it’s worse when it’s the anniversary,” said Swanson’s aunt, Laura Swick, of Balaton. “And this year it’s worse because it happens to land on Mother’s Day.”

Despite massive searches, Swanson, who was set to graduate from Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Canby, is still missing.

“We have a vehicle, a conversation and an assumed direction of travel — and we have no person,” said Ken Anderson, who co-manages the search efforts with Jeff Hasse. “We don’t have a lot to go on.”

The Minneapolis-based search managers weren’t there from the beginning, but once they took over the responsibility roughly eight years ago, they’ve been dedicated to seeing the search through to the end. The Minnesota leaders in their field do so on a volunteer basis.

“The most important reason is because we all deserve to have somebody look for us, whether it’s rescue or recovery,” Anderson said. “It’s just a moral issue. We all deserve that.”

On his way home from a college graduation party in Canby, Swanson phoned his parents, Annette and Brian Swanson of Marshall, asking them to come pick him up. Swanson believed he was near Lynd, so his parents immediately drove there.

After they were unable to find him, the Swansons called their son back and talked with him while they drove around, looking for him.

At one point, Swanson made the decision to get out of his vehicle and start walking. After 47 minutes of conversation — unfortunately, the last time anyone has heard from the young man — Swanson shouted a curse word and the phone suddenly went dead.

“In the beginning, you did the research — how long can a person go without food? — 14 days,” Swick said. “How about without water? Seven. So you have a window if you’re going to recover a life. We were all desperate when we started searching.”

With the assistance of cellphone records, law enforcement located Swanson’s car in rural Taunton — 20 miles from Lynd — the following afternoon.

“We’ve covered, in rough numbers, over 120 square miles of the watershed,” Anderson said. “There is still watershed to search to the northwest, approximately midway between Porter and Canby.”

The overwhelming belief is that Swanson, walking in the dark of night, slipped and fell into the Yellow Medicine River, which was quite swollen at the time. Canines indicated his presence at the edge of the river bank, but then seemingly followed his scent for a good distance farther on land, making searchers suspect that Swanson was able to get back out of the river and continue walking, possibly until he was overcome with hypothermia.

“The primary issue is that we’re dealing with a search that isn’t a few weeks or months old, and the longer in years that the search goes on, the less scent there is for canines to come across, whether that’s in the water, soil or a whole lot of other things” Anderson said. “We’re literally in an environment that is not well studied either.”

The wind in southwest Minnesota changes a lot of the search variables.

“In this case, because of its complexity over the years and the general search environment challenges — primarily of wind — if Brandon could be located, the amount of accumulated data could help with searches around the world,” Anderson said. “We’d be able to define what went right and what didn’t go as right — and if we were on the correct theory.”

The initial searches have covered a vast area since Swanson could have walked in a variety of different directions after getting out of his vehicle. Early on, a large number of people were needed to help search for Swanson. But later, qualified search dogs and their handlers have been a key factor in trying to pinpoint Swanson’s possible remains.

“You have to find the canines that can meet your current environment,” Anderson said. “That’s not always the one you started with. In the canine community of dogs that are certified, there are ones that can come in the first few months, when the scent is overpowering, but the further you go out — the far extreme that is considered a necro-search for clandestine burial sites that could be decades old — you have to train the dogs to have very fine-tuned experiences that the canine can reference to. You don’t want a dog that has both ends of the spectrum.”

Teaching a dog to look for a lot of scent versus a small amount of scent can be complicated. Learning how to interpret the dog’s findings also can be difficult.

“They literally could indicate and say, ‘yes, you’re within 5 miles,'” Anderson said. “But you really want the dog to indicate you’re within a quarter mile. They can’t tell you that, so you have to work that out.”

For people who don’t understand why Swanson hasn’t been located yet, Anderson has a response.

“You take something the size of a softball and put it somewhere within 140 square miles, get a dog and he has to find it,” he said. “None of this is easy at this point.”

Swick said most families of missing persons obviously want their loved one to return home safely. But when there’s a higher probability of that not happening, families just want answers.

“All they want is the truth,” she said. “The good, the bad, the ugly — they just want the truth.”

Searches for missing persons are extremely emotional and oftentimes take a toll on families and friends. There since the beginning, Swick admitted it was frustrating much of the time but says she really doesn’t consider giving up a possibility.

“We still don’t have the truth,” she said. “It’s kind of like chasing ghosts. Are we ever going to know? You come to the point where the scale is tipped. Do you give up or keep soldiering on? It usually hits me hard in the winter when I know we can’t do anything. It’s hard, but it is what it is.”

Some family members cope by focusing on family functions — by spending time with family who are here in the present. Swick, the mother of seven children, copes by compartmentalizing.

“I have high stress everywhere, so I think of my brain as a filing cabinet,” Swick said. “When I’m at work, the (work) drawer is open. When I’m at home, the drawer for home is open. I have a drawer that’s Brandon and when I get that call from Ken that says ‘go time,’ all other drawers close and Brandon’s drawer pulls wide open.”

Most searches begin with high optimism, but as Friday and Saturday fade away, sadness begins to set in.

“I still go to the search optimistic that today’s going to be the day that we find him,” Swick said. Then not Friday, but maybe Saturday. Then on Sunday, you resolve that it’s probably not the day but you still have a job to do. By the end of Sunday, I need that 45 minutes (that it takes to drive home to Balaton) by myself.”

Swick calls searching an emotional seesaw for most people involved in trying to locate Swanson.

“You want to find him, but you don’t want to find him,” she said. “Are we better for not knowing or will we be worse for knowing?”

As with any long-term search, rumors fly around at a high speed. People ponder whether alcohol or drugs played a role in Swanson’s disappearance, while some suggest he may have been kidnapped by someone with harmful intentions. A few of the tips have even been categorized as bizarre.

“So how do you know what to follow up on and what to believe?” Swick said. “I suppose anything is possible. Who didn’t make some poor choices when they were young? You just hope they make good choices after that.”

Most don’t believe Swanson could have carried on a 47-minute conversation on the phone with his parents if he’d been under the influence. Regardless, there needs to be an ongoing effort to locate Swanson, those closest to official searches said.

“This is a missing person,” Anderson said. “They need to have somebody with a passion to look for them, whether it’s for themselves for rescue or for the families that have to deal with the non-rescue environment. Somebody needs to do this for them.”


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